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WHAT'S THE KEY TO UNLOCKING GRIDLOCK?

In a recurring nightmare, Murray Mayor Lynn Pett sees the county's freeway system shutting down for repairs and spewing thousands of vehicles into already clogged arterials.

Sitting at the crossroads of the county, Murray becomes inaccessible, its commercial core withers, its residents panic . . . its mayor wakes up screaming.It was just a dream, he thinks, until he realizes that he's participating in a recurring urban transportation meeting in which he sees the county's freeway system shutting down for repairs and spewing thousands of vehicles into already clogged arterials.

Sitting at the crossroads of the county, Murray becomes inaccessible, its commercial core withers, its residents panic . . . its mayor stands up, screaming, "We're facing total gridlock!"

In a strongly worded address to other valley mayors, city council members and community leaders Wednesday, Pett said Salt Lake County is running out of time in its search for a transportation solution.

According to Pett, if steps aren't taken immediately to develop an efficient mass-transit system while securing freeway-expansion funding, the county's economic boom could go bust.

To that end, he and other mayors and the County Commission have launched a concerted effort to reach a consensus on mass transit, both as a short-term alternative during freeway reconstruction and a long-term player in the county's transportation future.

The effort began Wednesday with a preliminary overview conference that set the stage for next week's transit technology hearings. Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini said the three days of hearings are designed to help local leaders pick the mass-transit system that's best for the county.

According to Corradini, a mass-transit element - light rail, expanded bus or some other system - must be included in the bid for federal transportation funds.

"We have to pick the technology we want, and that's what we hope to do after the hearings this month," Corradini said, urging all local officials to attend the sessions.

The hearings begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, with presentations on 300 mile-per-hour trains, diesel trains, monorail, Aeromovel and Cybertrans systems. The Ottawa and Houston bus systems will be considered at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The hearings conclude on Thursday with a discussion on light rail followed by a public comment period.

In addition to bringing newly elected officials up to speed on the transportation debate, Corradini said the hearings will provide a forum to people who feel that alternatives to light rail have been ignored.

"Let's hear all of it, have a thorough discussion and then speak now or forever hold your peace," Corradini said. "We've got to make a decision and move on with it."

Consultant David French gave the local officials a brief overview of the proposed freeway reconstruction project, which is expected to cost about $1 billion and severely disrupt the valley's traffic for more than two years.

The plan includes construction of three additional lanes in each direction along the heaviest traveled segments of I-15, redesigned ramps and interchanges and bridge replacement.

A gasoline tax hike has been proposed to help pay for the road work, but Corradini and Pett indicated the tax hike isn't getting much support on Capitol Hill. They said they and several other mayors met Wednesday with Gov. Mike Leavitt, who was "unwilling to make a commitment on transportation funding."

Pett said the state surplus makes it difficult for state political leaders to support a gasoline tax hike, even though he and other local elected officials have offered to "take the heat."

Pett, who is chairman of the County Council of Government's transportation committee, said the valley's roads can't handle much more traffic. In 1960, 41,000 cars per day traveled along the main north-south routes of Redwood Road, State Street, 700 East and 900 East. Today, the number is up to 230,000, and it it's expected to hit 350,000 during the next 20 years.

"The result is severe problems in my city," Pett said, citing the traffic standstills along 4500 South, State Street and Murray's other major corridors. "It's costing us and all cities time and money and making our communities less desirable."

And with those roads already running at capacity, "Where is all the traffic going to go during the construction of I-15?" he asked. At the same time, the county's population is increasing at a rate of about 20,000 per year.

"We're becoming so successful in our economic development that our infrastructure is not keeping up. If we don't keep up, the economic upswing can become an economic downturn just as quickly," he said.